Physical Protection Practitioner Fundamentals

Session 3

Situational Awareness


This session contains links to other websites.  PSN cannot guarantee your security or safety when linking to these sites.

This session draws upon knowledge and perspectives of experienced practitioners together with published research and advice from respected authorities for example, the UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), the Australian-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee (ANZCTC). We acknowledge and appreciate the contribution of these and other organisations to public safety.

This session aims to synthesise key practical aspects from these sources in a manner that is relevant to the Australian and Asia-Pacific contexts.

Although focussed on the protection of people, property and places at the operational levels, this session also provides links to references that would assist in a deeper self-directed study that may also include theory, or reports or case studies of incidents.

Continuous learning about the threat landscape, threat countermeasures will assist in improving security resilience and professional recognition of protective security practitioners.

The Focus of this Practitioner Session

  • Further consider the threat landscape.
  • Encourage a deeper understanding into the topic including threat methods and countermeasures.
  • Develop human-centric situational awareness. While technologies designed to provide data capture and analysis are vitally important, human factors, including decision-making and actions will always determine the quality and ethical outcomes of this necessary process.
  • Places emphasis on the professional-level vigilance that protective security practitioners need to detect, disrupt, deter, and report during two critical periods, the hostile surveillance and the immediate lead-up to an attack.
  • Addresses situational awareness during and immediately after a terrorist attack or other serious security incident (Response and Recovery phases). These later phases are being developed and will be addressed in separate sessions.

Terminology and Definitions

The definitions of key elements of protective security practice are important to:

  • ensure messaging is accurately understood across stakeholder networks typically with diverse cultural and linguistic diversity, and
  • assist problem solving at the operational levels.

Definitions may change for example reflecting different contexts, situations, threat trends, technological advancement, changing legislation and new national or International Standards.

The source of terminology and definitions are may not be known or their origin may be ambiguous. This somewhat reflects the evolution of the body of knowledge for protective security. We apologise for any mistake in identifying or omitting the source. We would appreciate feedback to amend any sourcing.

Please refer to the Glossary for a more comprehensive view of definitions and terminologies.

Core terminologies and definitions for this session:

  • Protective security element (PSE):
  1. The collective of personnel including security and non-security personnel working together to provide robust and effective situational awareness at a property or crowded place. The PSE incorporates security and non-security personnel, typically personnel with customer facing functions or in positions conducive to observation. Examples may include facility personnel, concierge, cleaners, housekeeping personnel, receptionists, cleaners, dock masters and car park supervisors. The non-security component of the PSE should receive appropriate situational awareness training. (source: PSN)
  • Situational awareness:
  1. The ability to quickly recognise and interpret an event, make sound decisions based on those interpretations, and establish early, effective and continuous lines of communication between the incident site and the controlling agency in order to provide ongoing accurate information about the situation to responders. (Source: Australian Government). Or,
  2. Refers to a state of understanding in which the following occur:
  • Knowing and understanding what is happening around you
  • Predicting how it will change with time
  • Being unified with the dynamics of your environment (i.e., contextualization with the current environment given specific factors, variables, goals, and objectives). (U.S. Department of Homeland Security).
  1. A human mental process that can be enhanced using technology to access, analyze, and present information to have a greater understanding of existing conditions and how they will change over time.

Key Points

Situational awareness contributes to the spectrum of activities conducted by protective security professionals.

It is generally obvious to people observing security officers and other front-line or customer facing personnel (like concierge and car park attendant) if they are actively scanning their environment and engaging people in their immediate vicinity.

While situational awareness is the operational requirement, it is vigilance that is the human factor that will deliver real results in the mitigation of security and safety risks.

Situational awareness is vitally important for several reasons, for example this mental focus:

  • changes the perceptions of security at a location by would-be terrorist(s) who are conducting surveillance for the selection of a target or the planning of attack.
  • Reinforces to security officers that they are being observed and their routines assessed; avoid ‘pattern setting’ as far as practicable.
  • Can interrupt a terrorist attack.
  • Provides more competent security incident assessment, reporting and response.
  • Mitigates the risks associated with secondary attacks, such as planned by terrorists for first response agencies.

Security awareness could be likened to the strength of a chain. Should all members of the protective security element (PSE), including for example security officers, concierge, facilities personnel maintain and seen by others to maintain high levels of security awareness, the collective power of security awareness will be closer to being optimised.  The chain is strong.

However, should the PSE (for example, one or more security officers) fail to maintain high level situational awareness and does not project to the public (such as building occupants, visitors, delivery drivers) a strong security ‘posture’, then the chain is weak.

The failure of security officers to project their vigilance is also obvious to legitimate users of the location, for example tenants. This can erode their confidence in the people responsible to deliver effective protection from violence and other types of crime, like theft.

The concern by a member of a security team in poor situational awareness by a colleague can diminish confidence in that person as a protective security professional and negatively impact on team cohesion and security culture.

Practical Insights

Situational awareness:

  • situational awareness is a mindset.
  • always having a good perception of your surroundings.
  • knowing the area that you protect very well (‘Domain’ knowledge).
  • scanning for cues that may indicate a potential threat.
  • avoiding racial profiling.
  • comprehending what’s happening around you.
  • predicting how this will affect you, the safety of people and the protection of property.

Team-based situational awareness:

  • The ongoing input into a control room from members of the PSE and witnesses (e.g. tenants, visitors) improves dynamic risk assessments, team situational awareness and responses to situations. However, it can lead to confusion and information that may not be helpful for immediate decision-making. Typically, the first 10 minutes of a security-related incident are very demanding for security controllers and facility managers.
  • Team-based situational awareness relies on clear and concise communication within the team. Effectiveness will be improved from well-focussed training before an incident before an incident. PSE members returning from leave periods may lose essential ‘memory muscle’ and skills (‘skills atrophy’) – early refresher training should be seriously considered. Consider initial refresher training to focus on the most dangerous threat.
  • Team-based situational awareness will be usually reinforced by input from technology-based systems that provide surveillance, assessment and control. Effectiveness will be improved from well-focussed training before an incident, using available technology to understand and predict dynamic threat situations.
  • Team-based situational awareness will be enhanced by any available qualified advice, such as current threat assessments from law enforcement and precinct partners.
  • Situational awareness may be improved from active scanning of selected social media.
  • Diversity of the PSE composition tends to improve team-based situational awareness.
  • PSE members acknowledging people in their vicinity may deter terrorists from committing an attack for two key reasons. Firstly, the terrorist conducting hostile surveillance may think they have been identified. Secondly, it could raise the terrorist perception from their surveillance that there is high level situational awareness by security (and other personnel) at this location and as such may be a deterring factor.

Note: Customer service style gestures, like waving to a person, saying good morning, or asking the question ‘may I help you?’ can be powerful techniques to detect, interrupt and deter criminal intent.

  • In the situation of a precinct-wide or city-wide affected serious security incident, input from trusted sources for example, from counterparts in the precinct may prove to be valuable for your team-based assessment. Develop your precinct network before an incident occurring.

Recognizing cues:

There are certain cues that a person may be conducting hostile surveillance or the lead-up to a terrorist attack. For example:

  • External appearance that may identify a suspicious person:
  • Clothes unsuitable for the time of year.
  • Anything protruding in an unusual way under the person’s clothing.
  • May be wearing a backpack.
  • May be carrying a gym bag or luggage that appears to be unusually heavy.
  • Suspicious behaviour – hostile surveillance:
  • Glancing between right and left while walking.
  • Appears to avoid police or security personnel; avoiding eye contact.
  • Appears to be paying unusual attention to location of security officers, concierge, security control room, cloak rooms, loading dock, end-of -trip facilities, plant rooms, emergency exits, video surveillance cameras, control (vetting) points, ventilation systems, dedicated police parking zones.
  • Appears to photograph or taking notes or drawing key locations, such as security control room, emergency control room, emergency exits, stage exit doors, bus stop and taxi rank outside site (e.g. venue) or location of video surveillance cameras.
  • Appears to study or photograph displayed emergency evacuation diagram or tenancy information.
  • Appears to pace out distances between locations on site.
  • Asking random questions like ‘what time does the perimeter door lock?’
  • Observes emergency management training exercises.
  • Appears to return at least once.
  • Suspicious behaviour – rehearsals for attack / testing security team’s situational awareness:
  • Parking immediately outside site in illegal location, such as no parking, no standing or no stopping zones.
  • Deliberately moves near security officers or in view of video surveillance cameras.
  • Opening doors marked ‘ alarmed’.
  • Tries to open secure doors.
  • Tailgates through secure doors.
  • Shows interest in darkened areas.
  • Suspicious behaviour – lead up to an attack:
  • Nervousness, tension, profuse perspiration.
  • Nervous, hesitant mumbling.
  • Walking slowly in a hesitant manner, glancing between right and left, or running in a ‘mission driven’ manner.
  • Walking on a path or in a manner that appears to be avoiding video surveillance cameras.
  • Appears to avoid police or security personnel; avoids eye contact.
  • Repeated visits to rest rooms.
  • Repeated searching for something under their clothing.
  • Hands in pockets of trousers or outer clothing.
  • Electrical wires, switches or electronic devices sticking out of bag or pocket.
  • Individual refuses to show hands and in particular palms of hands when told to do so.
  • A vehicle parked outside near a particular security vulnerable zone, especially if vehicle displays non-matching number plates or is a rental vehicle.
  • A vehicle that shows signs of being weighed down, such as a car boot.
  • Some of the actions that should be considered:
  • Contact police as early as possible regarding any suspicious vehicle or person.
  • Security control room target video surveillance of suspicious vehicle or person(s) of interest (POI).
  • If the protected property or place is within a harbourside or river setting, security should treat vessels of interest (VOI), similarly to POI.
  • Trust your instincts. Use your senses – sight, smell and touch.
  • Avoid racial profiling.
  • Remember terrorists and other criminals can look like you, may be male or female, may be children or young people, and may be in a wheelchair. Stay open-minded – seek validation of your concerns – keep your control room informed.
  • As hostile surveillance and rehearsals can take place many weeks, sometimes months before an attack and sometimes undertaken repeatably, the archiving of video surveillance recordings may prove to be critical to investigations. Archival material or copies of it, should be kept ‘off-site’.
  • Security Control Room:

Personnel in a control room have to maintain situational awareness and make decisions with incomplete and sometimes unverified information. At the primary level understand the situation while remaining aware of the big picture:

  • Take clear leadership control. Stay calm.
  • Maintain physical security of the control room and follow the prepared procedures that cover the scenario.
  • Stay focused on the immediate threat.
  • Consider the timely action of necessary messaging to occupants, other personnel and emergency services. Stay factual, concise, clear and calm.
  • Check on the welfare of your team, especially those outside the safety of the control room.
  • Request SitReps.
  • Gain regular input from available systems.
  • Utilise trusted media sources and available open-source intelligence (OSINT).
  • Filter and assess information, some of which may be conflicting or not relevant to the situation (‘noise’). Seek to identify actionable intelligence.
  • Try to understand the situation and ‘think ahead’ – try to make predictions of likely actions by the offenders or the outcomes of their actions.
  • Within the available time, assess the situation from different perspectives.
  • Expand your focus to avoid fixation. There may be another offender at a different location on your property.
  • Manage stress and distractions.
  • Take whatever time is available to think and be willing to delay less critical decisions.
  • Prepare briefing and hand-over to first response agencies.
  • Communicate—ask for help, if required.
  • Enhance Your Skills in Situational Awareness:
  • Test yourself and your colleagues during your patrols to hone your skills and develop methods to maintain the necessary level of vigilance during your shift.
  • As a start take the challenge provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • Develop ‘mental’ pictures of the areas that you protect. This is what the area looks like under ‘normal’ conditions. Develop over time a built-up memory and update as required. Any changes to this mental picture when you pass-by the area may be a flag for suspicion.
  • Frequently refresh your mental pictures. The benefits may include reversing of fatigue.
  • Coaching colleagues about the mental picture technique can reverse passive, complacent behaviour or the distraction from a high workload.
  • The mental picture technique skill appears to have better personal results with self-directed learning and development, in other words self-taught.

More Information

  • For threats received contact police on emergency phone number (within Australia – TRIPLE ZERO – ‘000’).
  • For advice on current security threats and precinct security issues contact local police.
  • There are videos on situational awareness suitable for security operations on YouTube.
  • You are welcome to contact PSN for additional resources or discussion on this topic.

Understanding the Broader Context

PSN members are encouraged to conduct further research into this topic. The following are recommended starting references:

Note: Caution should be taken in using information of advice from other countries, for example assessments, currency, emergency phone numbers and terminology.

This Practitioner Session published November 2021. This topic is dynamic with information and practices subject to change.  Professional advice from qualified security consultants/advisors or security trainers should be considered to ensure, among other issues, your specific context.

Feedback and questions welcomed –

© Protective Security Network, Sydney  –  All Rights Reserved. 2022.

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